Here’s a catch-22 for the 21st century: Autonomous vehicles (AVs) will make roads safer by getting fallible human drivers out of the equation. But until AVs are safe enough, we need to rely on fallible human drivers to develop AVs.
In the interim, we might have introduced the most dangerous situation of all: bored humans who are supposed to be paying attention.
In the wake of the first AV-caused pedestrian death, we’re seeing just how big of a problem this can be. Last month, one of Uber’s self-driving cars struck and killed a pedestrian in Arizona. In video footage, the AV clearly doesn’t slow down before hitting the victim, Elaine Herzberg, which experts say could point to problems with Uber’s technology.
Not everyone is just blaming the tech, however. Uber’s AV had a human driver, Rafael Vasquez, behind the wheel at the time of the crash, and both AV experts and the victim’s family have criticized Vasquez for not doing enough to prevent it.
“The driver was eyes down most of the time, indicating complacency and not maintaining proper monitoring,” Missy Cummings, a professor of mechanical engineering and material science at Duke University, told the Wall Street Journal.
“It’s absolutely ridiculous,” Tina Marie Herzberg White, the victim’s stepdaughter, told the Guardian. “I can’t believe that the [driver] that was in the car did not see her.”
But are they expecting too much from AV operators? Or are manufacturers not expecting enough?
One former Uber test driver pointed out the pressures of the position to the WSJ: “The computer is fallible, so it’s the human who is supposed to be perfect. It’s kind of the reverse of what you think about computers.”
Manufacturers expect AV operators to keep constant watch on the road and intervene if the vehicle is about to cause an accident or violate a traffic law. But if the human intervenes too soon, the system’s capabilities aren’t really tested, which draws the ire of engineers. There’s another catch-22 for you, and it’s one that could literally put human lives in harm’s way.
Adding to the general aura of stress around the whole thing: How the public responds to AVs.
AV operators told the WSJ pedestrians would purposely jump out in front of their vehicles to see if they’d stop. Some AV operators have even had people physically assault the cars. Your job might be stressful, but is it “people banging on your office window” stressful?
Oh, and when it’s not stressful, the job is boring. It’s hard enough for regular drivers to resist the urge to daydream. Now imagine resisting that urge when you have nothing to do but stare straight ahead at mile after mile of unspooling road.
So: the job of AV operator is both stressful and boring. But is it actually hard?
Not according to one former Waymo test driver. “It’s about being alert. If you can’t be alert for a few straight hours, then you’re not a very good driver,” they told the WSJ.
AV operators can earn between $20 and $25 per hour, too, well above the minimum wage in the U.S. With a pretty short list of requirements, the candidate pool should be fairly large then, right? So why was Vasquez, who has multiple traffic citations on his record, operating Uber’s AV?
Apparently, a flawless driving record wasn’t one of Uber’s requirements for employment.
Maybe that’ll change in the wake of fatal incident. But still, it won’t solve the catch-22 we’re currently stuck in. The only way out seems to be that AVs get a lot better, real quick.